Wilbur Smith


The Sound of Thunder

Sean Courtney Series


An iconic action/thriller writer in the popular format of a family epic series, tracing ordeals and triumphs over generations, in this case against the exotic African background during the Boer war.


This was one of the first ‘grown-up’ (‘adult’ has the wrong connotations) books I read as a teenager, and I was surprised getting back to it something like twenty-five years later just how much I remembered. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to the skills of the writer or to the relative impressionability of my younger self, but I could still vividly recall several of the major incidents – which isn’t usually the case with me: I have really enjoyed rereading many books that I only read a decade ago, with far less recollection.


There’s much to find offensive and laughable in this book, perhaps mostly in what Smith presents as heroic, although his rigid goodie or baddie characters are also pretty hard to take. Sean Courtney, sure, is meant to be larger than life, but I don’t even think being a demigod justifies him bedding both his brother’s and his best friend’s wives – and somehow being supposed to maintain his unimpeachable integrity. We’re supposed to indulgently shake our heads at that rascal. Actually, more than that, we’re supposed to respect Courtney’s right to any woman who catches his eye because of the purported strength and depth of his passion, and because he’s such a manly stud. Otherwise it’s your standard shallow hero fare: tougher, smarter, winner financially, militarily, physically etc. Meanwhile, apart from his brother’s eleventh hour redemption, people are simply born good or bad – hence Courtney’s contrasting two sons: nurture is irrelevant.


Admittedly Smith has the maturity to present admirable and disreputable soldiers on either side, and his historical context is probably one of the strengths of the book. How would I know, but I get the impression he’d checked out some of the battle dates and details, and read some contemporary accounts. This is still, of course, a fantasy story, and we’re aware that our hero will survive the hail of bullets, and that the major character’s lives are worth considerably more than the cannon fodder around them. I won’t begrudge Wilbur the pleasure of that convention. I found it harder to be excited by Courtney’s growing prosperity: I don’t have the same worship of wealth acquisition so many popular writers seem to assume.


So, in summary, this book worked well enough for me as an engaging historical fiction/action novel, but conflicted with my values of character formation and heroism.


July 06